Doing Film History
Nearly everybody loves movies. We aren’t surprised that people rush
to see the latest hit or rent a cult favorite from the video store. But there
are some people who seek out old movies. And among those fans there’s
a still smaller group studying them.
Let’s call “old movies” anything
older than twenty years. This of course creates a moving target. Baby boomers
like us don’t really consider The
Godfather or M*A*S*H to be old movies, but many twentysomethings
today will probably consider Pulp Fiction (1994) to be old — maybe
because they saw it when they were in their teens. Our twenty-year cutoff is
arbitrary, but in many cases that won’t matter. Everybody agrees that La
Grande Illusion from 1935 is an old movie, though it still seems fresh and
Now for the real question. Why would anyone be interested in watching and
studying old movies?
Ask a film historian, professional or amateur, and you’ll get a variety
of answers. For one thing, old films provide the same sorts of insights that
we get from watching contemporary movies. Some offer intense artistic experiences
or penetrating visions of human life in other times and places. Some are documents
of everyday existence or of extraordinary historical events that continue to
reverberate in our times. Still other old movies are resolutely strange. They
resist assimilation to our current habits of thought. They force us to acknowledge
that films can be radically different from what we are used to. They ask us to
adjust our field of view to accommodate what was, astonishingly, taken for granted
by people in earlier eras.
Another reason to study old movies is that film history encompasses more than
just films. By studying how films were made and received, we discover how creators
and audiences responded to their moment in history. By searching for social and
cultural influences on films, we understand better the ways in which films bear
the traces of the societies that made and consumed them. Film history opens up
a range of important issues in politics, culture, and the arts—both “high” and “popular.”
Yet another answer to our question is this: Studying old movies and the times
in which they were made is intrinsically fun. As a relatively new field of academic
research (no more than sixty years old), film history has the excitement of a
young discipline. Over the past few decades, many lost films have been recovered,
little-known genres explored, and neglected filmmakers reevaluated. Ambitious
retrospectives have revealed entire national cinemas that had been largely ignored.
Even television, with some cable stations devoted wholly to the cinema of the
past, brings into our living rooms movies that were previously rare and little-known.
And much more remains to be discovered. There are more old movies than new ones
and, hence, many more chances for fascinating viewing experiences.
We think that studying film history is so interesting and
important that during the late 1980s we began to write a book surveying the field.
The first edition of Film History: An Introduction appeared
in 1994, the second in 2003, and the third will be published in spring of 2009.
In this book we have tried to introduce the history of cinema as it is conceived,
written, and taught by its most accomplished scholars. But the book isn’t
a distillation of all film history. We have had to rule out certain types of
cinema that are important, most notably educational, industrial, scientific,
and pornographic films. We limit our scope to theatrical fiction films, documentary
films, experimental or avant-garde filmmaking, and animation—realms of
filmmaking that are most frequently studied in college courses.
Researchers are fond of saying that there is no film history, only film histories. For
some, this means that there can be no intelligible, coherent “grand narrative” that
puts all the facts into place. The history of avant-garde film does not fit neatly
into the history of color technology or the development of the Western or the
life of John Ford. For others, film history means that historians work
from various perspectives and with different interests and purposes.
We agree with both points. There is no Big Story of Film History that accounts
for all events, causes, and consequences. And the variety of historical approaches
guarantees that historians will draw diverse conclusions.
We also think that research into film history involves asking a series of questions and
searching for evidence in order to answer them in the course of an argument. When
historians focus on different questions, turn up different evidence, and formulate
different explanations, we derive not a single history but a diverse set of historical
What Do Film Historians Do?
While millions are watching movies at this moment, a few thousand are studying
the films of the past. One person is trying to ascertain whether a certain film
was made in 1904 or 1905. Another is tracing the fortunes of a short-lived Scandinavian
production company. Another is poring over a 1927 Japanese film, shot by shot,
to find out how it tells its story. Some researchers are comparing prints of
an obscure film to determine which one can be considered the original. Other
scholars are studying a group of films signed by the same director or set designer
or producer. Some are scrutinizing patent records and technical diagrams, legal
testimony, and production files. And still others are interviewing retired employees
to discover how the Bijou Theater in their hometown was run during the 1950s.
Questions and Answers
One reason is evident. Most film historians—teachers, archivists, journalists,
and freelancers—are cinephiles, lovers of cinema. Like bird-watchers,
fans of 1960s television, art historians, and other devotees, they enjoy acquiring
knowledge about the object of their affection.
Movie fans may stop there, regarding the accumulating of facts about their passion
as an end in itself. But whatever the pleasure of knowing the names of all the
Three Stooges’ wives, most film historians are not trivia buffs. Film historians
mount research programs, systematic inquiries into
A historian’s research program is organized around questions that
require answers. A research program also consists of assumptions and background
knowledge. For a film historian, a fact takes on significance only in the context
of a research program.
Consider this image, from a film of the silent era.
A film archivist—that is, someone who works in a library devoted to
collecting and preserving motion pictures—often comes across a film that
is unidentified. Perhaps the title credit is missing or the print carries a title
that differs from that of the original film. The archivist’s research program
is, broadly, identification. The film presents a series of questions: What is
the date of production or of release? In what country was it made? What company
and personnel made the film? Who are the actors?
Our mysterious film carries only the French title Wanda l’espione (“Wanda
the Spy”)—most likely a title given to it by a distributor. It was
probably imported rather than made in Belgium, where the print was discovered.
Fortunately there are some clues in the print itself. The lead actress, seated
in the foreground, is a famous star, Francesca Bertini. Identifying her makes
it almost certain that the film is Italian. But Bertini was a star from 1907
into the 1930s. How can we narrow the dates further?
The film’s style helps. The camera points straight toward the back wall
of the set, and the actors seldom move closer to the camera than they are seen
here. The editing pace is slow, and the action is staged so that performers enter
and exit through a rear doorway. All these stylistic features are typical of
European filmmaking of the mid-1910s. Such clues can be followed up by referring
to a filmography (a list of films) of Bertini’s career. A plot
description of a 1915 film in which she starred, Diana l’affascinatrice (“Diana
the Seductress”), matches the action of the unidentified print.
Note that the identification depended on certain assumptions. For example, the
researcher assumed that it’s extremely unlikely for a modern filmmaker
to create a fake 1915 Italian film, just to baffle archivists. (Film historians
need not worry about forgeries, as art historians must.) Note, too, that the
researcher needed some background knowledge. She had reason to believe that films
staged and cut a certain way are characteristic of the mid-1910s, and she recognized
a star from other films of the period.
Most historians go beyond identification and tackle broader subject areas. Consider
another common situation. An archive holds many films made by the same production
company, and it also has numerous filing cabinets bulging with documents concerning
that company’s production process. Its collection also includes scripts
in various drafts; memos passed among writers, directors, producers, and other
staff; and sketches for sets and costumes. This is a rich lode of data—too
rich, in fact, for one researcher to tackle. The historian’s problem is
now selecting relevant data and salient facts.
What makes a datum relevant or a fact salient is the historian’s research
program and its questions. One scholar might be interested in tracing common
features of the company’s production process; he might ask something like, “In
general, how did this firm typically plan, execute, and market its movies?” Another
historian’s research program might concentrate on the films of a certain
director who worked for the company. She might ask, “What aspects of visual
style distinguish the director’s films?”
Some facts would be central to one program but peripheral to another. The historian
interested in the company’s business routines might not particularly care
about a daring visual innovation introduced by the director who is the focus
of the other historian’s inquiry. In turn, the stylistic historian might
be uninterested in how the company’s producers promoted certain stars.
Again, assumptions exert pressure on the researcher’s framing of questions
and pursuit of information. The company historian assumes that he can trace general
tendencies of production organization, largely because film companies tend to
make films by following fairly set routines. The director-centered researcher
assumes that her director’s films do have a distinct style. And both historians
would mobilize background knowledge, about how companies work and how directors
direct, to guide their research.
Historians in any discipline do more than accumulate facts. No facts speak for
themselves. Facts are interesting and important only as part of research programs.
Facts also help us ask and answer questions.
Film History as Description and Explanation
Inevitably, a historian needs at least a little information, along with background
knowledge and assumptions, to prod her to ask questions. But the historian does
not necessarily sift through mountains of facts and then judiciously ask a question.
A historian may begin with a question, and sometimes that question might be better
described as a hunch or an intuition or even just an itch.
For example, one young historian saw a few of the “anarchic” American
comedies of the 1930s and noticed that their vulgar gags and absurd situations
were very different from the more sophisticated comedy of the period. Suspecting
that stage comedy might have been a source, he framed a question: “Might
vaudeville and its performance style have shaped these particular comedies of
the early 1930s?” He began to gather information, examining films, reading
coverage of the comedians in the Hollywood trade press, and studying shifts in
American taste in humor. The process of research led him to refine his question
and to mount a detailed account of how comedians introduced a vaudeville aesthetic
into sound films but then muted it in accord with Hollywood’s standards
Nonhistorians often visualize the historical researcher as a cousin to Indiana
Jones, braving library stacks and crawling through attics in quest of the treasure-lode
of documents that overturn popular opinion. Certainly new documentation has a
key role to play in historical research. One scholar gained entry to the long-inaccessible
files of Hollywood’s self-censorship agency, the Hays Office, and she was
able to put forth a new account of the office’s procedures and functions.2 Similarly,
the increasing availability of films from cinema’s earliest era has created
an entire subfield of cinema history.3
Still, many research programs rely more on asking new questions than on unearthing
new data. Sometimes the research question seems to have been answered by previous
historians, but another researcher comes along and suggests a more complete or
complex answer. For example, no historian disputes the fact that Warner Bros.
was quick to invest in talking pictures in the mid-1920s. For a long time most
historians believed that Warners took this risky step because it was on the verge
of bankruptcy and was desperate to save itself. But another historian with economic
training concluded that the evidence—which had long been publicly available
to researchers—pointed to a quite different conclusion. Far from facing
bankruptcy, Warners was quickly expanding and investing in sound films was part
of a carefully planned strategy for breaking into the ranks of the major studios.4
Our examples all indicate that the historian’s research program aims to
do at least two things. First, the historian tries to describe a process
or state of affairs. She asks What and who and where and when. What
is this film, and who made it, and where and when? In what ways does this director’s
work differ from that of others? What was the vaudeville comedic style? What
evidence is there that a studio was nearly bankrupt? Who is the actor in this
shot? Who was responsible for scripts at this company? Where was this film shown,
and who might have seen it? Here the historian’s problem is largely one
of finding information that will answer such questions.
Accurate description is indispensable for all historical research. Scholars have
spent countless hours identifying films, collating versions, compiling filmographies,
establishing timelines, and creating reference works that supply names, dates,
and the like. The more sophisticated and long-lived a historical discipline is,
the richer and more complete its battery of descriptive reference material will
Second, the historian tries to explain a process or state of affairs.
He asks, How does this work? and Why did this happen? How did
this company assign tasks, lay out responsibilities, carry a project to completion?
How did this director’s work influence other films from the company? Why
did Warners pursue talkies when larger companies were reluctant to do so? Why
did some sound comedians adopt the vaudeville comedic style while others did
The film historian, like a historian of art or politics, proposes an explanatory
argument. Having asked how or why, she puts
forward an answer, based on an examination of evidence in light of assumptions
and background knowledge. In reading historical writings, we need to recognize
that the essay or book is not just a mass of facts but an argument. The historian’s
argument consists of evidence marshalled to create a plausible explanation for
an event or state of affairs. That is, the argument aims to answer some historical
Most arguments about film history rely on evidence. Evidence consists of information
that gives grounds for believing that the argument is sound. Evidence helps us
judge whether the historian has presented a plausible answer to the original
Film historians work with evidence of many sorts. For many historians, copies
of the films they study are central pieces of evidence. But this data set is
partial. Although the cinema is a relatively young medium, invented only a little
over a century ago, many films have already been lost or destroyed.
For decades, movies were seen as products with temporary commercial value, and
companies did little to ensure their preservation. Even when film archives began
to be founded in the 1930s, they faced the daunting task of collecting and sheltering
the thousands of films that had already been made. Archivists had to choose what
they could afford to retain. Moreover, the nitrate film stock, upon which most
films up to the early 1950s were shot and printed, was highly flammable and deteriorated
over time. Deliberate destruction of films, warehouse fires, and the gradual
decomposition of nitrate stored in bad conditions have led to the loss of many
titles. In the frame below, from Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn,
an Irish film from 1918, severe nitrate deterioration has obliterated the most
According to rough estimates, only about 20 percent of silent films are known
to survive. Many of these are still sitting in vaults, unidentified or unpreserved
due to lack of funds.
More recent films may be inaccessible to the researcher as well. Films made in
some small countries, particularly in Third World nations, were not made in many
copies and did not circulate widely. Small archives may not have the facilities
to preserve films or show them to researchers. In some cases, political regimes
may choose to suppress certain films and promote others. Finding reliable copies
to study is a major challenge for the historian whose questions center on the
Historians also rely on print sources. These may be published sources, such as
books, magazines, trade journals, and newspapers, or unpublished ones, like memoirs,
letters, notes, production files, scripts, and court testimony. Historians of
film technology scrutinize cameras, sound recorders, and other equipment. A film
studio or an important location might also serve as a source of evidence.
Usually historians must verify their evidence. Often this depends on using the
sort of descriptive research we have already mentioned, such as combing primary
documents, checking filmographies and reference works, and the like. The problem
of verification is particularly acute with film prints. Films have always circulated
in differing versions. In the 1920s, Hollywood films were shot in two versions,
one for the United States and one for export. These could differ considerably
in length, content, and even visual style. To this day, many Hollywood films
are released in Europe in more erotic or violent versions than are screened in
the United States. In addition, many old films have deteriorated and been subject
to cutting and revision. Even modern restorations do not always reproduce the
original release version.
Often, then, the historian doesn’t know whether the print she is seeing
represents anything like an original, if indeed there can be said to be a single
original version. Historians try to be aware of the differences among the versions
of the films they are studying. The fact that there are different versions can
itself be a source of questions.
Historians generally distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
As applied to film, primary usually refers to sources the people directly
involved in whatever is being studied. For example, if you were studying Japanese
cinema of the 1920s, the surviving films, interviews with filmmakers or audience
members, and contemporary trade journals would count as primary material. Later
discussions concerning the period, usually by another historian, would be considered
Often, though, one scholar’s secondary source is another’s primary
source, because the researchers are asking different questions. A critic’s
1966 essay about a 1925 film would be a secondary source if your question centered
on the 1925 film. If, however, you were writing a history of film criticism during
the 1960s, the critic’s essay would be a primary source.
Explaining the Past: Basic Approaches
There are distinct types of explanation in film history. A standard list would
Biographical history: focusing on an
individual’s life history
Industrial or economic history: focusing
on business practices
Aesthetic history: focusing on film art
(form, style, genre)
Technological history: focusing on the
materials and machines of film
Social/cultural/political history: focusing
on the role of cinema in the larger society
This sort of inventory helps us understand that there is not one history
of film but many possible histories, each adopting a different perspective. Typically,
the researcher begins with an interest in one of these areas, which helps him
to formulate his initial question.
Nevertheless, such a typology shouldn’t be taken too rigidly. Not all questions
the historian may ask will fall neatly into only one of these pigeonholes. If
you want to know why a film looks the way it does, the question may
not be purely aesthetic; it might be linked to the biography of the filmmaker
or to the technological resources available when the film was made. A study of
film genres might involve both aesthetic and cultural factors. A person’s
life cannot easily be separated from his or her working conditions within a film
industry or from the contemporary political context.
We propose that the student of film history think chiefly in terms of questions,
keeping in mind that some interesting questions are likely to cut across categorical
Explaining the Past: Organizing the Evidence
Finding an answer to a historical question may involve both description and explanation,
in different mixtures. The techniques of descriptive research are specialized
and require a wide range of background knowledge. For example, some experts on
early silent cinema can determine when a film copy was made by examining the
stock on which it is printed. The number and shape of the sprocket holes, along
with the manner in which a manufacturer’s name is printed along the edge
of the film strip, can help date the print. Knowing the age of the stock can
in turn help narrow down the film’s date of production and country of origin.
Historical explanation also involves concepts that organize the evidence produced
by specialized knowledge. Here are some of them.
Chronology Chronology is essential to historical
explanation, and descriptive research is an indispensable aid to establishing
the sequence of events. The historian needs to know that this film was made before
that one or that event B took place after event A. But history is not mere chronology.
A chronology stops short of explanation, just as a record of high and low tides
gives no hint as to why tides change. History, as we have already seen, centrally
Causality Much historical explanation involves
cause and effect. Historians work with conceptions of various kinds of causes.
Individual Causes People have beliefs
and desires that affect how they act. In acting, they make things happen. It
is often reasonable to explain a historical change or a past state of affairs
in light of the attitudes or behavior of individuals. This is not to say that
individuals make everything happen or that things always happen as people originally
intended or that people always understand just why they did what they did. It
is simply to say that historians may justifiably appeal to what people think
and feel and do as part of an explanation.
Some historians believe that all historical
explanation must appeal to person-based causes sooner or later. This position
is usually called methodological individualism. A different, and even
more sweeping, assumption is that only individuals, and exceptional individuals
at that, have the power to create historical change. This view is sometimes labeled
the Great Man theory of history, even though it is applied to women as well.
Earlier generations of film historians, for example, were inclined to treat D.W. Griffith
as the most important figure in the U.S. silent cinema because it seemed that
he invented a number of editing techniques that became widespread. More recent
historians have developed a counterargument, thanks to the greater availability
of films by other directors and a more comparison-based method. These scholars
claim that Griffith developed certain tendencies that were already present, pushing
them to a new level of expression. Moreover, his most original techniques were
not picked up by others, so in some respects other directors had more influence
on standard editing practice. As an individual Griffith remains important, but
he is probably not the Great Innovator that people once considered him.
Group Causes People often
act in groups, and at times we speak of the group as having a kind of existence
over and above the individuals who compose it. Groups have rules and roles, structures
and routines, and often these factors make things happen. We speak of a government’s
declaring war, yet this act may not be reducible to more detailed statements
about what all the individuals involved believed and did.
When we say that Warner Bros. decided to adopt
sound, we are making a meaningful claim, even if we have no information about
the beliefs and desires of the individual decision makers at the company; we
may not even fully know who they were. Some historians assert that any historical
explanation must, sooner or later, ground itself in group-based causes. This
position is usually called holism, or methodological collectivism, as
opposed to methodological individualism.
Several sorts of groups are important to the
history of cinema. Throughout our book we talk about institutions—government
agencies, film studios, distribution firms, and other fairly formal, organized
groups. We also talk about more informal affiliations of filmmakers. These are
usually called movements or schools, small assemblies of filmmakers
and critics who share the same interests, beliefs about cinema, conceptions of
film form and style, and the like. The Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s—Lev
Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, V.I. Pudovkin, and many others—are a classic
instance of a movement. Despite their individual differences, these men held
in common a commitment to editing, often disjunctive editing, as central to a
movie’s effects on a viewer.
Less well-defined cases of a movement would be German Expressionist film of the
1920s, Italian neorealism after World War II, and French New Wave filmmaking
during the 1960s. In these instances, the filmmakers often insisted that they
shared no consciousness of belonging to a movement. Still, historians often find
common trends in the films, in the production circumstances, and in the local
film culture, and these factors justify treating the filmmakers as a group, even
if not a full-fledged movement.
Influence Most historians use some notion of influence
to explain change. Influence describes the inspiration that an individual, a
group, or a film can provide for others. Members of a movement can deliberately
influence a director to make a film a certain way, but a chance viewing of a
movie can also influence a director.
Influence does not mean simple copying.
You may have been influenced by a parent or a teacher, but you have not necessarily
mimicked his or her behavior. In the arts, influence is often a matter of one
artist’s getting ideas from other artists’ work but then pursuing
those ideas in a personal way. The result may be quite different from the initial
work that stimulated it. The contemporary director Jean-Luc Godard was influenced
by Jean Renoir, although their films are markedly different. Sometimes we can
detect the influence by examining the films; sometimes we rely on the testimony
of the filmmaker.
A body of work by a group of directors may also
influence later films. Soviet cinema of the 1920s influenced the documentary
director John Grierson. The Hollywood cinema, as a set of films, has been enormously
influential throughout film history, although all the directors influenced by
it certainly did not see exactly the same films. Influences are particular kinds
of causes, so it is not surprising that influences may involve both individual
activity and group activity.
Trends and Generalizations Any historical question
opens up a body of data for investigation. Once the historian starts to look
closely at the data—to go through a studio’s records, examine the
films, page through the trade press—she discovers that there is much more
to explore than the initial question touches on. It’s like looking into
a microscope and discovering that a drop of water teems with organisms of confounding
variety, all going about very different business.
Every historian omits certain material. For one thing, the historical record
is already incomplete. Many events go unrecorded, and many documents are lost
forever. Further, historians inevitably select. They unweave the tangles of history
and create a more coherent pattern. A historian simplifies and streamlines according
to the question he is pursuing.
One principal way historians go about such simplification is by postulating trends. Lots
of things are going on, they admit, but “by and large” or “on
the whole” or “for the most part,” we can identify a general
tendency. Most Hollywood films of the 1940s were made in black and white, but
most Hollywood films today are in color. On the whole, there has been a change,
and we can see a trend toward the increasing use of color film stock between
the 1940s and the 1960s. Our task is to explain how and why this trend occurred.
By positing trends, historians generalize. They necessarily set aside interesting
exceptions and aberrations. But this is no sin, because the answer to a question
is necessarily pitched at a certain level of generality. All historical explanations
pull back from the throbbing messiness of reality. By recognizing that tendencies
are “for-the-most-part” generalizations, the scholar can acknowledge
that there is more going on than she is trying to explain.
Periods Historical chronology and causation are
without beginning or end. The child who incessantly asks what came before that
or what made that happen soon discovers that we can trace out a sequence of events
indefinitely. Historians necessarily limit the stretch of time they will explore,
and they go on to divide that stretch into meaningful phases or segments.
For example, the historian studying American silent cinema already assumes that
this period within film history ran from about 1894 to around 1929. The historian
will probably further segment this stretch of time. She might break it down by
decade, treating the 1900s, the 1910s, and the 1920s. Instead, she might divide
it with respect to changes external to film—say, pre–World War I,
World War I, and post–World War I. Another possibility is creating periods
that mark phases in the development of storytelling style, such as 1894–1907,
1908–1917, and 1918–1929.
Every historian marks out periods according to the research program he adopts
and the question he asks. Historians recognize that periodization can’t
be rigid: trends do not follow in neat order. It is illuminating to think of
the American “structural” film of the early 1970s as a response
to the “lyrical” film of the 1960s, but lyrical films were still
being made well in the 1970s and afterward. Histories of genres often mark off
periods by innovative films, but this is not to deny that more ordinary movies
display a great deal of continuity across periods. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
brought Satanic horror into the A-picture realm, but in the years that followed,
most horror films continued to be low-budget product.
Similarly, we ought not to expect that the history of technology or styles or
genres will march in step with political or social history. The period after
World War II was indeed distinctive, because this global conflict had major effects
on film industries and filmmakers in most countries; but not all political events
demarcate distinct periods in relation to changes in film form or the film market.
The assassination of President Kennedy was a wrenching event, but it had little
effect on activities in the film world. Here, as ever, the historian’s
research program and central question will shape her sense of the relevant periods
and parallel events. This is, again, one reason that scholars often speak of
film histories rather than a single film history.
Significance In mounting explanations, historians
of all arts make assumptions about the significance of the artworks they discuss.
We might treat a work as a “monument,” studying it because it is
a highly valued accomplishment. Alternatively, we might study a work as a “document” because
it records some noteworthy historical activity, such as the state of a society
at a given moment or a trend within the art form itself.
Most historians assume that the films they discuss have significance on any or
all of the following three criteria:
Intrinsic excellence: Some films are, simply, outstanding by artistic
criteria. They are rich, moving, complex, thought-provoking, intricate, meaningful,
or the like. At least partly because of their quality, such films have played
a key role in the history of cinema.
Influence: A film may be historically significant by virtue of its influence
on other films. It may create or change a genre, inspire filmmakers to try something
new, or gain such a wide popularity that it spawns imitations and tributes. Since
influence is an important part of historical explanations, this sort of film
plays a prominent role in most histories.
Typicality: Some films are significant because they vividly represent
instances or trends. They stand in for many other films of the same type.
The three criteria don’t have to combine. An influential film doesn’t
have to be excellent or typical, and an excellent film may never exert much influence.
The films of Robert Bresson are usually considered exceptionally good, but for
a long time they influenced no other filmmaking. But of course in some cases
the criteria can combine. A highly accomplished genre film, such as Singin’ in
the Rain or Rio Bravo, is often considered both excellent
and highly typical. Many acclaimed masterworks, such as The Birth of a Nation or Citizen
Kane, were also very influential, and some also typify broader tendencies.
Some Key Questions
The preface to Film History: An Introduction,
third edition, outlines the questions we focus on, but it’s probably worth
mentioning them here as well.
Although the book surveys the history of world cinema, we could hardly start
with the question What is the history of world cinema? That would give
us no help in setting about our research and organizing the material we find.
Instead, we have highlighted three major questions.
1. How have uses of the film medium changed or become normalized over
time? Within “uses of the medium” we include matters of film
form: the part/whole organization of the film. Often this involves telling a
story, but a film’s overall form might also be based on an argument or
an abstract pattern. The term “uses of the medium” also includes
matters of film style, the patterned uses of film techniques (mise-en-scène, or
staging, lighting, setting, and costume; camerawork; editing; and sound). In
addition, any balanced conception of how the medium has been used must also consider
film modes (documentary, avant-garde, fiction, animation) and genres (for example,
the Western, the thriller, or the musical). So we also examine these phenomena.
All such matters are central to most college and university survey courses in
A central purpose of our book is to survey the uses of the medium in different
times and places. Sometimes we dwell on the creation of stable norms of form
and style, as when we examine how Hollywood standardized certain editing options
in the first two decades of filmmaking. At other times, we examine how filmmakers
have proposed innovative ways of structuring form or using film technique.
2. How have the conditions of the film industry—production, distribution,
and exhibition—affected the uses of the medium? Films are made within modes
of production, habitual ways of organizing the labor and materials involved
in creating a movie. Some modes of production are industrial; that’s when
companies make films as a business. The classic instance of industrial production
is the studio system, in which firms are organized in order to make
films for large audiences through a fairly detailed division of labor. Hollywood’s
studio system is the most famous, but there have been studio systems of production
in many countries.
Another sort of industrial production might be called the artisanal, or one-off, approach,
in which a production company makes one film at a time (perhaps only one film,
period). Still other modes of production are less highly organized, involving
small groups or individuals who make films for specific purposes. In all these
instances, the ways in which films are made have had particular effects on the
look and sound of the finished products. An avant-garde films, made on a low
budget by an individual filmmaker, is more likely to be a personal expression
than a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.
The ways in which films are exhibited have also affected film history. For example,
the major technological innovations associated with the early 1950s — wide-screen
picture, stereophonic sound, increased use of color — were actually available
decades earlier. Each could have been developed before the 1950s, but the U.S.
film industry had no pressing need to do so since film attendance was so high
that spending money on new attractions would not have significantly increased
profits. Only when attendance dropped precipitously in the late 1940s were producers
and exhibitors pushed to introduce new technologies to lure audiences back into
3. How have international trends emerged in the uses of the film medium
and in the film market? In Film History we try to balance the consideration
of important national contributions with a sense of how international and cross-cultural
influences were operating. Many nations’ audiences and film industries
have been influenced by directors and films that have migrated across their borders.
Genres are vagabond as well. The Hollywood Western influenced the Japanese samurai
film and the Italian Western, genres that in turn influenced the Hong Kong kung-fu
films of the 1970s. Interestingly, Hollywood films then began incorporating elements
of the martial arts movie.
Just as important, the film industry itself is significantly transnational. At
certain periods, circumstances closed off countries from the flow of films, but
most often there has been a global film market, and we understand it best by
tracing trends across cultures and regions. We have paid particular attention
to conditions that allowed people to see films made outside their own country.
Each of these how questions accompanies a great many why questions.
For any part of the processes we focus on, we can ask what conditions caused
them to operate as they did. Why, for instance, did Soviet filmmakers undertake
their experiments in disturbing, aggressive narrative? Why did Hollywood’s
studio system begin to fragment in the late 1940s? Why did “new waves” and “young
cinemas” arise in Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan around 1960? Why
are more films produced now with international investment than in the 1930s or
1940s? Historians are keen to know what factors made a change occur, and our
general questions include a host of subquestions about causes and effects.
Recall our five general explanatory approaches: biographical, industrial, aesthetic,
technological, and social. If we had to squeeze our book into one or more of
these pigeonholes, we could say that its approach is predominantly aesthetic
and industrial. It examines how types of films, film styles, and film forms have
changed in relation to the conditions of film production, distribution, and exhibition
within certain countries and within the international flow of films. But this
summary of our approach is too confining, as even a cursory look at what follows
will indicate. Sometimes we invoke an individual — a powerful producer, an
innovative filmmaker, an imaginative critic. Sometimes we consider technology.
And we often frame our account with discussions of the political, social, and
cultural context of a period.
Take, for example, our central question: How have uses of the film medium changed
or become normalized over time? This is a question about aesthetic matters, but
it also impinges on factors of technology. For instance, conceptions of “realistic” filmmaking
changed with the introduction of portable cameras and sound equipment in the
late 1950s. Similarly, our second question — How have the conditions of the
film industry affected the uses of the medium? — is at once economic, technological,
and aesthetic. Finally, asking how international trends have emerged in the uses
of the film medium and in the film market concerns both economic and social/cultural/political
factors. In the early era of cinema, films circulated freely among countries,
and viewers often did not know the nationality of a film they were seeing. In
the 1910s, however, war and nationalism blocked certain films from circulating.
At the same time, the growth of particular film industries, notably Hollywood,
depended on access to other markets, so the degree to which films could circulate
boosted some nations’ output and hindered that of others. In addition,
the circulation of U.S. films abroad served to spread American cultural values,
which in turn created both admiration and hostility.
In sum, we have been guided, as we think most historians are, by research questions
rather than rigid conceptions of the type of history we are writing. And what
we take to be the most plausible answer to a given question will depend on the
strength of the evidence and the argument we can make for it — not on a prior
commitment to writing only a certain kind of history.
History as Story
Our answers to historical questions are, however, not simply given in a list
or summary. Like most historical arguments, ours takes a narrative form.
Historians use language to communicate their arguments and evidence to others.
Descriptive research programs can do this through a summary of findings: this
film is Diana l’affascinatrice, made in Italy by Caesar-Film in
1915, directed by Gustavo Serena, and so on. But historical explanations require
a more complicated crafting.
Sometimes historians frame their explanations as persuasive arguments. To take
an example already cited, a historian investigating the development of sound
by Warner Bros. might start by considering the various explanations already offered
and taken for granted. Then he might set forth the reasons for believing his
alternative interpretation. This is a familiar form of rhetorical argument, eliminating
unsatisfactory beliefs before settling on a more plausible one.
More often, historians’ explanations take the form of stories. Narrative
history, as it is called, seeks to answer how and why questions
by tracing the relevant circumstances and conditions over time. It produces a
chain of causes and effects, or it shows how a process works, by telling a story.
For instance, if we are trying to answer the question How did the Hays Office
negotiate with firms to arrive at an agreement about an acceptable film? we
can frame a step-by-step narrative of the censorship process. Or, if we are seeking
to explain what led the Hays Office to be created, we might lay out the causal
factors as a story. As these examples indicate, the story’s “characters” might
be individuals or groups, institutions or even films; the “plot” consists
of the situations in which the players operate and the changes they initiate
Narrative is one of the basic ways in which humans make sense of the world, and
so it’s not surprising that historians use stories to make the past intelligible. Film
History: An Introduction follows tradition in creating a large-scale narrative,
one that includes several stories within it. We divide film history into six
large periods — early cinema (to about 1919), the late silent era (1919–1929),
the development of sound cinema (1926–1945), the period after World War
II (1946–1960s), the period running from the 1960s to the 1980s, and the
contemporary era (1980s-the present). These divisions reflect developments in
(1) film form and style; (2) major changes in film production, distribution,
and exhibition; and (3) significant international trends. The periodization can’t
be exactly synchronized for all three areas, but it does indicate approximate
boundaries for the changes we try to trace.
An alternative organizational pattern is that of the topical history.
Topical history treats an idea or theme rather than a story. If you were writing
a book-length history of Manhattan, for instance, you might devote one chapter
to geography, another to political dynamics, another to social changes, another
to the events of 9/11, and so on. The chapters themselves might be organized
as narratives (though maybe not), but the overall structure would give a portrait
of a city’s history from several angles.
The historian must decide, at various levels, between narrative organization
and topical organization. Suppose your question was How did America’s
postwar occupation of Germany affect the local film industry
and culture? Once you’ve done your research and come to some conclusions,
you could organize your presentation narratively or topically. That is, your
chapters could proceed in chronological order to trace the changes in the industry
between 1945 and the early 1950s. Or each chapter could deal with events occurring
across the entire period, but in different spheres — production, censorship,
journalism, exhibition, and the like. In another topical layout, you could organize
the book around key films or film policies that had an impact on different spheres
of German life.5
A CASE STUDY
To suggest the flavor of doing historical research, we offer one of our own experiences.
Here Kristin explains the process of researching a book-length study of Ernst
Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood:
German and American Film after World War I (University of Amsterdam, 2005).
Of the directors widely considered to be among the greatest, Ernst Lubitsch has
had relatively little of substance written about him. The other directors of
Germany’s “golden age” of the silent cinema, F. W. Murnau and
especially Fritz Lang, have received more attention. Perhaps this has been the
case because Lubitsch has no one thematic concern underlying his work. Murnau
and Lang also are linked to the German Expressionist movement, while Lubitsch
worked outside it. His habit of moving between vast historical epics and broad
comedies for his German films makes him hard to pin down. But why is he important?
Filmmakers and cinema buffs love Lubitsch, partly for the sheer quality of his
work, from the hilarious silent comedies of the late 1910s, like I Don’t
Want to Be a Man and The Doll to the masterpieces of the sound
period, most notably Trouble in Paradise (1932) and The Shop around
the Corner (1940). Apart from his being a great director, though, why is
There are many things a historian could say about Lubitsch. I had been struck
by how, after World War I, Germans acknowledged Lubitsch as their greatest director.
After he moved to Hollywood, he quickly came to be considered the greatest director
there as well. Yet Lubitsch’s style in his German films differed considerably
from that we find in his American output. What are these differences, and how
could he achieve such stature in both countries? A study of Lubitsch could also
highlight how American and German national films styles differed during these
crucial years in the development of the cinema as an art.
According to traditional historical accounts, during the 1920s, imaginative German
techniques like Expressionist set design and the freely moving camera quickly
influenced Hollywood films. Historians had not considered the influence might
move in the opposite direction, from Hollywood to Germany. A study of how Lubitsch
adapted so quickly to the American way of filmmaking could test that standard
How long a period should the book cover? Lubitsch had begun as a silent-film
comedian, directing some of his own shorts and short features during the war.
He moved into features in 1918. I decided to limit my focus to the ten-year period
from 1918 to 1927, the year of Lubitsch’s last surviving silent film. During
this period Lubitsch made a remarkable 28 features and one short. Of these titles,
seven are not known to survive. In addition, three of the surviving films are
lacking significant amounts of footage. The 21 available films became the core
body of evidence for my study.
Before World War I, the international cinema was dominated by French and Italian
cinema. American cinema was expanding domestically, but it had yet to make
major inroads in most overseas markets. During the war, however, production declined
in France and Italy, and the American firms quickly stepped in to supply theaters
in many territories. Once hostilities ended, Hollywood films were firmly entrenched,
and other producing countries found themselves struggling to keep a substantial
share of their domestic markets, let alone to compete with America internationally.
The war had, ironically, strengthened the German industry. In 1916, the government
banned the import of all but Danish films. This ban was kept in place until December 31,
1920. Thus for nearly five years, German film production was free to
expand, and the industry emerged from the war second in size and strength only
to Hollywood. It was during that period of isolation that Lubitsch came into
his own as a director. Institutional circumstances played a role in making him
the finest proponent of the German approach to filmmaking (a style which was
largely the same as that used in most European producing countries).
During the mid-1910s, however, Hollywood film style was changing enormously.
What has been termed the “classical” style emerged, the underlying
principle of which was to tailor film technique to tell a story as comprehensibly
and unobtrusively as possible. Scenes were broken up into closer shots through
analytical editing, shifting the spectator’s eye to the most salient part
of the action at each moment. Filming in diffused light in the open air or in
glass-sided studios was abandoned in favor of “dark” studios illuminated
entirely by artificial lighting. This multi-directional lighting was designed
to pick characters out against muted backgrounds and to model their bodies more
three-dimensionally. The technique became codified as three-point lighting.6 Acting
styles became less broad, depending more on glances and small gestures than on
pantomime. Set design evolved to make the space containing the action simpler
and hence less distracting. In sum, a new trend had begun, led by American filmmaking.
Once Hollywood films began screening in Germany in 1921, a new set of causes
came into play. German filmmakers started absorbing the American style, and Lubitsch
was in the forefront of this change. His German films of 1921 and 1922 reflect
his new knowledge of classical technique, and he was clearly ready to make the
leap into Hollywood filmmaking even before he went there. Once in America, he
rapidly honed his application of classical principles, and soon he was in turn
influencing the filmmakers there with a string of masterpieces, including The
Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925).
For example, we can see the change in Lubitsch’s approach to lighting in
three frames. The first, from Carmen (1918), shows lighting coming entirely
from the front; there’s no backlighting to pick out the gray uniform against
the gray background.
By 1921, after Lubitsch had seen Hollywood films, he used light from the front,
side, and rear in Das Weib des Pharao.
In Hollywood, Lubitsch routinely used back lighting to make his actors stand
out against the sets, as in this frame from Three Women (1923).
In setting out on my project, I asked a small number of questions. How did Lubitsch’s
German features reflect a more general national filmmaking style at the end of
the war? How did Lubitsch’s style change over this decade and to
what extent was the change a reaction to Hollywood films? What impact did the
new classical Hollywood style have more generally on German filmmaking in the
I was already familiar with American films of this period,
having collaborated on The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985,
Columbia University Press) with David and with Janet Staiger. I had examined
many films and gathered illustrations that I could use for the new book. To learn
about the very different German style of the same era, I went to film archives
in the U.S. and abroad to study Lubitsch’s
films in detail, watching them on an editing table and making frame reproductions
for use as illustrations. I examined Lubitsch’s context by watching about
75 films by other directors, also collecting images for illustrations. (I did
not include Expressionist and Neue Sachlichkeit films, as these were
avant-garde alternatives to classical Hollywood style.) I wasn’t looking
at acknowledged masterpieces, for I wanted to track typical trends in German
In libraries I went through film-industry publications, primarily the Lichtbildbühne and Film-Kurier,
and the two main technical journals of the 1920s, Die Kinotechnik and Die
Filmtechnik. Cinematography manuals and the memoirs of people who had worked
with Lubitsch filled in details of the director’s working methods. Legal
papers in the United Artists collection of the Wisconsin Center for Film and
Theater Research shed light on Mary Pickford’s dealings with Lubitsch during
and after their work on Rosita (1923) — dealings about which some
widely believed myths had persisted. Reviews of Lubitsch’s films in the
German and American press revealed how Lubitsch’s films were viewed and
what expert viewers noticed about their look.
All this evidence allowed me to answer my initial questions. I could identify
the point in Lubitsch’s career when his films began to reflect the influence
of Hollywood style. I was able to do the same with more ordinary German films
of the post-war era. I showed that, contrary to the standard view of this era,
Hollywood films had considerably more impact on German films than the other way
In writing the book, I didn’t organize the chapters to give a chronological
account of Lubitsch’s career during this ten-year period. Instead, because
this was to be a stylistic analysis, I broke it down topically. An introductory
chapter laid out Lubitsch’s German career briefly and discussed the industrial
and social conditions in Germany that discouraged or fostered the movement of
The next four chapters centered on four areas of film technique: lighting, set
design, editing, and acting. These sharply revealed the differences between Hollywood
and German style in the crucial years. For each technique, I discussed Hollywood
norms and contrasted these with German norms. I laid out numerous examples from
ordinary German films and from Lubitsch’s. Each chapter ended with a section
on Lubitsch’s Hollywood films and how closely each adhered to classical
The final chapter dealt with the influences of Hollywood film on mainstream commercial
German cinema of the era after Lubitsch had left his native country. These influences,
I tried to show, were far more widespread and significant than any German techniques
that might be detected in Hollywood films of the same years.
Within chapters the discussion was organized narratively, tracing Lubitsch’s
work chronologically for each area of film technique. The overall argument moved
from specific to general. While the opening chapter dealt largely with Lubitsch’s
career and work, the last one left Lubitsch and concentrated almost entirely
on German cinema of the 1920s.
Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood was published, few of Lubitsch’s
silent features were widely known. Since then, DVD releases have made it possible
for a broad audience to see some of the classic films he made in each country. The Eyes of the Mummy (1918)
is available. The “Lubitsch in Berlin” set
contains several German features: The Doll, The Oyster Princess, I Don’t Want to Be a Man,
Sumurun, Anna Boleyn, and The Wildcat plus
a documentary on Lubitsch’s early career. (Each is available separately
as well.) Lubitsch’s two most important Hollywood films are also on DVD:
His romantic comedy The Marriage Circle (1924)
is available, and a restored print of what is arguably his masterpiece of the
silent period, Lady Windermere’s
Fan (1925), is part of the “More
Treasures from American Film Archives” set.
Perhaps now readers can evaluate my answers to the questions my book seeks to
answer, and I hope that other historians will ask new ones of their own.
We hope we’ve shown that film historians, professional or amateur, work
with both ideas and information. They mount projects within research programs.
They don’t simply state facts; they try to ask questions. They don’t
just pile up data; they make arguments. The facts and questions, data and arguments
combine to make doing film history a fascinating pursuit.
Historical writing about films will probably never be as common as film criticism;
most people prefer to comment about films by analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating
them. Writing an essay on film history takes a lot more time and effort than
writing a review of a current film. Nonetheless, historical study offers unique
pleasures. If you want to understand the context of a film that you admire,
you would enjoy reading film history. Just as important, a deeper understanding
of film history introduces you to a range of new films to enjoy. Finally, if
we have any curiosity about the films that captivate us now, we can start to
satisfy it by thinking historically. What happens today springs from what happened
yesterday. By trying to understand film history, we better understand the movies
of our moment.7
1 : This research program
is described in Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy
and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).
See Lea Jacobs, The Wages
of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film (1991; reprint Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1997).
See, for example, Yuri Tsivian, et al., Silent
Witnesses: Russian Films 1908–1919 (Pordenone:
Giornate del Cinema Muto, 1989); Charles Musser, Before
the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991); Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the
Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1991); and Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre
to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1997).
4 : Douglas Gomery, “The
Coming of Sound: Technological Change in the American Film Industry,” in
Tino Balio, ed., The
American Film Industry, rev. ed. (Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 229–51.
5 : See Jennifer Fay, Theaters
of Occupation: Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
6 : See David Bordwell
and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, eighth ed. (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2008), 128-130.
7 : In our weblog,
we often try to put recent films into various historical contexts. See www.davidbordwell.net/blog.